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This a wonderful biography of seven generations of daughters which ends with Juliet Nicolson's own daughters and granddaughter. The Sackville-West family history is well-documented already as so many of its members have been writers, but there has gathered over the generations also a fantastic treasure trove of diaries and letters for Juliet to draw on. What a gift for a biographer, and Juliet does it all full justice. The result is superb, filled with detail, understanding, honesty and insight into family relationships.
The stories start with the diplomat Lionel Sackville-West falling in love with the impossibly beautiful, married Spanish dancer Pepita in 1852 whom he kept hidden away with their five children in Arcachon in France. Their eldest (illegitimate) daughter Victoria became her father's companion in Washington before marrying her first cousin, another Lionel Sackville-West, and living at Knole, the beloved family seat in Kent. Victoria found to her surprise and joy that she relished sex with her husband at every opportunity (gardeners would tactfully turn away), but she gave birth to one child in such agony that she vowed to have no more children and no more sex. The marriage disintegrated and the relationship with her one daughter was both passionate and fraught. That one daughter was Vita Sackville-West, the writer and close friend of Virginia Woolf, who herself became both charismatic and selfish and damaging like her mother. On the eve of her marriage to the Conservative Harold Nicolson who adored her throughout his long life, Vita kept to her bed stricken by depression and weeping and shortly after her marriage she fled to Italy with her lover Violet Trefusis. She did return however, had sons with her husband and with him they established the beautiful garden at Sissinghurst. Her son Nigel was Juliet's dearly-loved father. He made a disastrous marriage to Philippa who had money but an impossibly antipathetic culture. Nigel did not love her and found sex shameful, something that had to be done as he wrote, 'like going to the lavatory'. Philippa was deeply unhappy and was a neglectful and deeply damaging mother to Juliet, finally moving permanently to the jet-set at Saint Tropez and a second unhappy marriage.
What runs though these fascinating and beautifully interwoven life-stories are the failings of the mothers seemingly passed down through the generations, made more searingly damaging, despite (or because of) all the blessings that money could provide, by alcoholism and unhappiness. Victoria sank into alcohol-aided dementia; Vita (Juliet's grand-mother) would be wheeled back to the house in a wheelbarrow by loyal gardeners who would find her slumped amongst the roses; Philippa ended up a hopeless and pathetic alcoholic and fatally destroyed her liver - and most shocking of all is Juliet's own candid account of her own slump into alcoholism following the disintegration of her long and initially very happy marriage when she found herself repeating the cruel neglect of her own mother to her towards her own daughters. But she overcame her alcohol demons and righted the wrongs imposed on her daughters, one of whom has given her the gift of an adored grand-daughter.
Fantastic listening and sympathetically read! But I was on enough occasions for it to be annoying surprised by the narrator's mis-pronunciation of words, particularly names - which is why I gave the reading 4 instead of 5. The rest is 5+
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
I thought I knew quite a lot about this family, having read about Vita and Harold in the past but this book, delightfully narrated, covers fresh ground. I was hooked from the start and missed my stop on the tube several times as I was so engrossed. Very touching and honest. Highly recommended!
2 of 2 people found this review helpful